While solar panels are already a common sight on almost anything from rooftops to calculators, the next generation of solar panels may hardly be visible. Researchers at MIT have been busy developing the thinnest and lightest solar cells ever produced. These mini solar panels are as light as soap bubbles - one fiftieth as wide as a human hair and a one thousand times thinner than glass cells - and they’re flexible, so that they can go on most any surface. The researchers have actually been able to balance one atop a soap bubble. This means the panels could potentially be used on anything from a smartphone to a T-shirt, or even paper. What’s more, they’re ultimately more efficient at harnessing the sun’s energy.
For the cell’s substrate, the layer that supports the solar panel, and its protective overcoating, the research scientists used a flexible material called parylene, a kind of plastic used in printed circuit boards and implanted biomedical devices. For the light-absorbing layer, they used an organic component call DBP. The cells are created in a vacuum chamber, without ever being handled, thus minimizing the chance of exposing them to dust and contaminants that might affect performance. Nor are they exposed to the high temperatures and harsh chemicals used in producing conventional cells. Basically, everything is added right on top of the “carrier” material, and then the whole product is peeled off.
Even though the cell produced isn't terribly efficient, it can use sunlight to make electricity just as effectively as a glass-based cell, and its low weight gives it the highest power-to-weight ratios achieved to date. The revolutionary cell has the potential to spark a new technological era of solar energy. For starters, smartphones could be outfitted with the new solar cells to utilize solar power by day. The cells are so light, you could wear them on a temperature-control T-shirt without knowing they are there.
According to the researchers, the new cells are still technically in development, and developing them into manufacturable products will take time. Says Professor Vladimir Bulović, the project’s lead researcher, “We have a proof-of-concept that works. The next question is how many miracles does it take to make it scalable? We think it’s a lot of hard work ahead, but likely no miracles needed.”